Ethiopia, a landlocked country situated in the Horn of Africa, has firmly established itself as one of Africa’s top birding destinations. Only twenty years ago it was an out-of-bounds, desperately impoverished and war-torn ex-Marxist state. Tourism infrastructure didn’t exist then and development has been slow. Tours groups that I guided to Ethiopia ten years ago had to endure very basic accommodation, almost no surfaced roads and low levels of service. Not much was known about Ethiopia’s birds and there was no decent fieldguide. This has all changed as birders and other travelers have discovered this unique jewel.
The Abyssinian Empire was the only African nation to survive what is now known as the Scramble for Africa, and was never colonized (it did endure 6 brutal years under Fascist Italian occupation). Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974 and the country was renamed Ethiopia and ruled by a backward Marxist government known as the Derg, that was finally overthrown in 1991. During these times, great famines plagued the land and their legacy continues with Ethiopia being in most people’s minds a parched desert populated by starving people.
Yet this is far from the truth, Ethiopia actually consists largely of fertile mountains where woodlands, forests and lakes abound. There are also dry areas but this great diversity has resulted in an incredible bird list of over 900 species including Africa’s 2nd highest count of endemics (after South Africa). Based on current taxonomy, Ethiopia has 15 endemics and nearly 40 near-endemics (many of which were endemics until Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991.) A two-week birding tour could expect around 400 species and up to 550 in 3 weeks, including sightings of most of Ethiopia’s endemic and near-endemic birds. Besides birding, Ethiopia offers superb mammal viewing (it can’t boast the volumes of Kenya & Tanzania to the south, but it does have some fascinating species), jaw-dropping scenery, fascinating history and culture (from tribal groups whose lives have little changed in thousands of years, to medieval castles and rock-hewn churches where ancient Christian ceremonies are still performed.)
Below is a selection of the endemic birds and mammals that can be encountered during a birding trip to Ethiopia, all photographs by Adam Riley during a January-February 2012 Rockjumper Birding Tours trip to Ethiopia.
This pale shouldered ibis is endemic to Ethiopia and Eritrea and is commonly found in highland moorlands, wetlands and even gardens. It has a loud, unharmonious call and is named for the wattle of bare skin that dangles off its throat. Addis Ababa is a good a site as any for this bird.
Occurring only in Ethiopia, this high altitude waterfowl is not uncommon on alpine lakes. The Bale and Simien Mountains are the strongholds for Blue-winged Goose.
Unusual for a rallid, Rouget’s Rail is found in open high-elevation moorlands as well as more typical marshland habitat. The Bale Mountains are the most reliable site for this bird where it is not uncommon. This bird was enjoying late afternoon sunshine atop this rock on the high elevation Sanetti Plateau in the Bale Mountains.
Although endemic (but shared now with Eritrea), this is a common city pigeon found in all areas of higher elevation in Ethiopia. Addis Ababa is a reliable stake-out!
Another endemic now shared with Eritrea, this cute little parrot is not uncommon in forest edges and woodlands, even occurring in towns and cities. This image was taken in Lalibela.
Also occurring in Eritrea and Sudan, this species range is mostly centered around Ethiopia. It is common in forests and thicker woodlands throughout the highlands and Great Rift Valley. Wondo Genet is a great site for this bird as well as the forests on the eastern shores of Lake Langano where I took this image.
Abyssinian Long-eared Owl
This can be a very tough bird to find, but the juniper forests around the Bale Mountain park headquarters at Dinsho are the most reliable and is where this bird was photographed.
This lovely endemic is quite widespread in the mid-elevation areas of Ethiopia, where-ever fig trees abound. This image was taken from a hotel roof in Lalibela, thus allowing eye-level views!
This small, golden-backed woodpecker can be very elusive, it was photographed in juniper woodland on the slopes of the Bale Mountains, but this woodpecker can also be seen at Wondo Genet and even in Addis Ababa.
An attractive meadow-lark like species that occurs in high-elevation grasslands, often near water courses. The Sululta Plains north of Addis Ababa are an excellent site for this endemic.
Rüppell’s Black Chat
This perky, all-black chat sports massive white wing panels in flight and is of the habit of cocking its tail regularly. It prefers rocky areas of mid to high elevation and is particularly common in the Lalibela region.
White-winged Cliff Chat
Sometimes occurring with the closely related Mocking Cliff Chat, this endemic to Ethiopia and Eritrea prefers rocky areas with good woodland cover. This female was photographed in the Simien Mountains.
Abyssinian Slaty Flycatcher
Another common endemic shared with Eritrea, this rather dull bird can be found on forest edge, woodlands and even well wooded gardens. This image was taken at Gonder in the grounds of the beautiful Holy Trinity Church.
A near-endemic, this attractively-scaled babbler is not uncommon is small noisy groups in woodlands and thickets. Several rather different races occur sporting pure white heads to others with black faces, this is the white faced limbata race that is found around Lalibela.
This attractive endemic to Ethiopia and Eritrea has a beautiful liquid call that echoes through the moss-draped forests it prefers to frequent. Wondo Genet, where this image was taken, is an excellent site for this bird.
One of Ethiopia’s most impressive endemics, this massively bedecked corvid is common in highland areas and particularly abundant in the Simien Mountains, where this image was taken. They will take carrion and scraps, so often hang around habitations, emitting their curious video-arcade like contact calls.
A beautiful starling belonging to the red-winged starling group. Flocks of cheerful birds frequent caves and cliffs where they breed. They are particularly common around Lalibela where I took this image. Males have dark heads whereas females sport sooty ones.
A rather plain yellow-rumped seedeater (in fact its alternative name is Yellow-rumped Seedeater), this bird is found in drier areas of central and northern Ethiopia, often around cliffs. I photographed a flock of these birds drinking from seeping water on the cliffs over Nakuta La’ab Cave Church near Lalibela. A Common Kestrel had a nest nearby and whilst we were watching, the kestrel swooped in and grabbed an unfortunate seedeater, that was plucked and consumed on a nearby perch.
This is a rather rare and localized endemic known from just a few scattered sites in eastern Ethiopia, preferring dry Acacia savanna near gorges and cliffs. The traditional site for this highly sought-after bird is Sof Omar Caves which is where I was fortunate to obtain this image.
Another rather dull seedeater, this bird is common in areas of middle to higher elevation, preferring woodlands and gardens. It is easily found in Addis Ababa and Gonder, this image is from the latter site.
Black-headed Siskin by Adam Riley
Also known as Abyssinian Siskin, this attractive high-elevation species is regularly encountered in massive flocks over moorlands. This image of two males is from the Sululta Plains.
Also known as the Simien Wolf or Fox, this long-legged canid is an ancient relict of former times when Timber Wolves had more expansive ranges. They have now evolved to survive mostly on rodents of high elevation moorlands in Ethiopia’s mountains. This is now the world’s rarest canid and is endangered and under severe threat of extinction with a population estimated to be around 550 individuals. The most accessible site for observing this beautiful wolf is the Sanetti Plateau in the Bale Mountains.
Restricted now just to the northern forest-clad slopes of the Bale Mountains, this highly localized antelope is also endangered and has a population of approximately 2,500. It is best seen around the Dinsho park headquarters of the Bale Mountains.
Also classified as endangered by IUCN, the Walia Ibex now numbers only 500 individuals and is restricted to the Simien Mountains in the north of Ethiopia, where they forage on moorlands and cliffs.
Gelada lip flare
My favorite Ethiopian animal, the Gelada used to be considered a baboon but is actually the last survivor of an ancient group of grass-eating monkeys that used to occur throughout Africa, the Mediterranean and India. Despite sporting the largest canines in proportion to body size of any mammal, they actually feed mostly on grass blades. They have a complex social structure, the study of which has been of great relevance in analyzing the evolution of human social behavior. Spending time sitting in amongst massive grazing herds of 500 or more of these primates and observing their fascinating interactions is one of the highlights of Ethiopia.
Gelada mock attack